If you’re excited about a recipe that calls for shallots, but your kitchen is inconveniently shallot-free, there are a number of shallot substitutes you can make.
What is a shallot?
Shallots belong to the allium genus of vegetables; this means that they’re closely related to scallions, garlic, chives, and leeks. Their closest relative is the onion. They are technically a type of onion, but chefs and recipes almost always place them in a category of their own.
The flavor of shallots is similar to onion, but much milder, especially when they’re cooked. They are sweeter and less acidic than onions, with a very slight garlic-y flavor. Because of this mellow flavor profile, they are preferred in recipes where the strong flavor of onion or garlic would be overpowering; shallots can round out a dish very nicely without overpowering it. But that doesn’t mean a recipe that calls for shallots can’t be just as delicious with some careful substitutions.
Sourcing and storing shallots
It’s only in the last few decades that home cooks really recognized shallots in America, but they’ve been a starring feature in French recipes for many years. France still grows most of the shallots that end up in American groceries. Shallots also feature heavily in Indian and Southeast Asian cooking.
Most Americans have seen only one or two types of shallots (a typical grocery will rarely carry more than one) but there are actually dozens of types.
The shallots you’ll see most often are small, golden, and oval, teardrop or almond-shaped. They look a bit like a small, elongated yellow onion. Another common kind is rounder and purple.
Shallots can also be grown in a garden with the same techniques as onions and garlic; a spring planting of shallots will lead to a good harvest in fall.
They should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place, and will stay good for one to two months. Make sure they have some breathing room and don’t store them with other kinds of fruits or vegetables. Toss out any shallots that get soft or discolored. Chopped or sliced shallots sealed in airtight bags will stay good in the freezer for up the three months.
White or Yellow Onion
For a recipe calling for raw shallot, raw yellow onion is a good substitute, and white onions (the sharpest, most onion-y flavored onions) can do as a raw shallot substitute in a pinch. If the recipe calls for raw shallots, use half as much yellow onion by volume as you would shallot.
For cooked shallots, you can use a one-to-one ratio; start with less, though, and taste as you cook. As many cooks know, it doesn’t take much for a dish to go from flavored with onion to flavored with only onion.
To mimic a bit of shallot’s complex flavor, cooked onion can benefit from a very small amount of garlic powder. You can also chop the onion finer than you would the shallot, and cook a little longer, to take out some of the sharpness. If you can find white pearl onions, which you’ll most often see used to make pickled or “cocktail” onions, they are an excellent substitute.
Because red onion has a milder flavor than white or yellow onions, you can replace raw shallot with raw red onion in a one-to-one ratio (or a bit less). It will still have a bit more bite, but finely chopped red onion is a good choice to substitute in salads and garnishes.
However cooked red onion dramatically changes the appearance of a dish, so it isn’t a good shallot substitute for a cooked dish.
Leeks have a very similar taste to shallots, so they’re a great choice to use as a shallot substitute. Go ahead and use a one-to-one ratio. Although the white bulb resembles shallots most, it’s actually the mid-green part of the stalk that will give you the most similar flavor. One thing to keep in mind: leeks cook more quickly than other members of the allium family. Add them later in the cooking process if you can, or cook at a slightly lower temperature.
Scallions (Green Onions)
Many people mix up shallots and scallions, and this is often perfectly fine. Scallions are a better choice than onions as a shallot substitute in cooked recipes because they have a mellower flavor. Use only the white bulbs at the bottom of the scallion, and save the green stalks to use as a garnish or for another recipe. Add just a little bit of garlic powder or crushed garlic when you use scallions as a shallot substitute.
An interesting note: the famous chef Julia Child, writing cookbooks in the 1960s to introduce classical French cuisine to Americans, knew that Americans would be hard-pressed to find shallots easily, and scallions were the alternative she recommended.
Don’t substitute garlic for shallots in your recipes, though a little bit can accentuate onion, leek or scallion if you’re using one of those as a replacement. But garlic and shallots do share one wonderful feature.
Like garlic, shallots can be oven-roasted in their skins, resulting in something beautifully soft and fragrant, with a complex, caramelized sweetness. Like roasted garlic, slow-roasted shallot is delicious in all sorts of savory dishes.
Garlic Scapes and Green Garlic
You will probably only encounter garlic scapes or green garlic if you grow your own garlic, but if you do come by them they make a great substitute for shallots. Garlic scapes are the curly green leaves that grow aboveground as garlic matures in the soil. Green garlic is an ordinary garlic bulb that is harvested before reaching maturity. Both of them have a mellow garlic flavor without the mature bulb’s overwhelming pungency.
A word of warning: these are substitutions you can make for a dish containing shallots as a flavoring. If a dish is designed to showcase shallots—if the recipe has “shallot” in the name, or contains more than a few tablespoons of shallot, you’ll want to make the trip to the grocery for the real thing.